The Waning of the Renaissance, 1550-1640

William James Bouwsma, Author Yale University Press $50 (288p) ISBN 978-0-300-08537-2
Consciously mirroring the title of Johan Huizinga's classic The Waning of the Middle Ages, this welcome addition to the Yale Intellectual History of the West series deconstructs European culture in the age of Cervantes, Montaigne and Galileo. Moving easily across national and disciplinary boundaries, Bouwsma (professor emeritus, UC Berkeley) challenges the assumption that we are direct heirs to the Renaissance. He argues with stunning clarity that the period from 1550 to 1640 was a phase of complex ambivalence, doubt and retreat, and that anxiety stimulated both cultural change and spectacular creativity. Along with the continuing Renaissance drive to destroy old barriers to understanding and human fulfillment came a countervailing concern that freedom had become absurd in excess, as suffocating as the overripe fruit of late-medieval culture, famously described by Huizinga. The imagery of disease, misbirth and disorder became pervasive, while a propensity to melancholy was fashionable in some circles. (Like a number of features of Bouwsma's argument, this has interesting implications for our own modern crises and depressions.) Nothing, people felt, was quite what it seemed; expectation and hypocrisy obscured the deeper self. There was, in short, ""a profound set of discontents released by the peculiar freedoms of Renaissance culture."" Out of these anxieties a craving for order emerged: a compulsion to categorize, an insistence on social boundaries and a growing attraction for mathematical certainties. Bouwsma produces a masterful portrait of an era, one deserving to become as canonical as Huizinga; it will be increasingly difficult to teach or discuss the 16th century without it. 20 illus. not seen by PW. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 01/08/2001
Release date: 01/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-0-300-09717-7
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